Tens of thousands of wind turbine blades could be destined for landfill by the end of the decade unless end-of-life programs are established.
The giant aerofoils, which are constructed of carbon fibre or glass fibre composites, are expensive to break down and the recovered material has little worth, researchers say.
"The same features that make the blades cost-effective and reliable for use in commercial wind turbines make them very difficult to recycle in a cost-effective fashion," University of South Australia Professor Peter Majewski says.
"It is not realistic to expect a market-based recycling solution to emerge, so policymakers need to step in now and plan what we're going to do with all these blades that will come offline in the next few years."
The race is on to find alternative solutions, with estimates suggesting there will be more than 40 million tonnes of blade waste globally by 2050.
In many parts of the world, blades continue to be dumped in landfill but the practice has been banned in some European countries.
Prof Majewski says there's limited potential for re-using blades in niche construction settings and a small market for some reclaimed materials.
However it's likely the costs of disposing of the blades in a sustainable way will need to be factored into their production and running costs.
"Our research indicates the most likely viable option is a product stewardship or extended producer responsibility approach," he says.
"Either the manufacturer must take responsibility for what needs to be done with the blades at the end of their useful life or the wind farm operators must provide end-of-life solutions as part of the planning approval process for their business operations."
While self-regulation might work, the long lifespan and high cost of blades means official frameworks would be required to ensure a transition of responsibility.
"If manufacturers disappear or wind farms go broke, we need to ensure processes are still in place for the turbine blades to be disposed of properly," Prof Majewski said.
Consumers would bear some cost through energy tariffs but it's hoped market competition between energy producers would help minimise the impact.
Without such solutions, he believes, energy options like wind and solar may prove no more sustainable than the old technologies they will replace.
By late 2019 there were 101 wind farms in Australia, the largest at Coopers Gap in Queensland featuring 123 turbines.
A further 10 farms were commissioned in 2020, according to the Clean Energy Council. However 21 were under construction or financially committed nationally by year's end.
It's generally accepted turbines have a working life of 25-30 years. While around 15 per cent of Australia's farms are more than 15 years old, some built before 2000 are already spinning towards decommission.
Australian Associated Press
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